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Chinese Prostitutes In 1900s

.. erson. For some prostitutes, suicide, madness or a violent death proved to be the only way out of misery. One prostitute tried to run away from her owner and hide in the Nevada hills. By the time she was found, both her feet had frozen and had to be amputated, and in the end she courted death by refusing to take medicine or food.

In another instance, a popular dance hall girl nicknamed “The Yellow Doll” by her admirers in Deadwood, South Dakota, was found “chopped into pieces” in 1876. In Virginia City, Nevada, six Chines prostitutes committed suicide to escape enslavement. Most prostitutes did not have the individual or collective means to resist their fate. Refusing to work only brought on beatings and other physical tortures. Cases were reported of prostitutes attempting escape with the help of lovers, but only a few succeeded.

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Because of the high value placed on prostitutes, owners went to great expense to recover their property. “Hiring highbinders to retrieve them and paying legal fees to file writs of habeas corpus or criminal charges against the women for grand larceny. Once the women were arrested, the owners would post the required bail, drop the charges, and repossess the women.” During those times, not all prostitutes met these horrible fates, there were a few who escaped the confines of their enslavement. China Annie was an exceptional case. A prostitute belonging to a member of the Yeong Wo Company in Idaho City, she escaped to Boise to marry her lover, Ah Guan.

Her owner charged her with grand larceny for stealing herself, and after a four-week search, she was apprehended and taken to court. The judge, sympathetic to her cause, dismissed the case and allowed her to return to her husband. Another prostitute who won her freedom, Polly Bemis, survived the harsh frontier life to become a legendary figure in her community. Born lalu Nathoy in northern China in 1853, she grew up in poverty. At an early age she was sold for two bags of seed to bandits, shipped to America as a slave, and auctioned off to a Chinese saloon keeper in an Idaho mining camp.

She later married Charlie Bemis, who won her in a poker game, and the two homesteaded on twenty acres of land along the Salmon River. Twice she saved Charlie’s life, and many times she nursed neighbors back to health. She was so well respected that when she died in 1933, members of the Grangeville City Council served as her pallbearers and the creek running through her property was named Polly Creek in her honor. A number of established institutions responded to the plight of Chinese prostitutes. For many years the Chinese Six Companies, the governing body in Chinatown, sought to have prostitutes and their procurers deported and worked with the authorities to eradicate the problem.

American newspapers frequently ran stories about the evils of prostitution, but almost always in a sensation way, using headlines such as “Story of Girl Shows Workings of a Chinese Ring,” “Confession of a Chinese Slave Dealer,” “Her Back Was Burnt With Irons,” and “Chinese Girl Flees to the Mission From Inhuman Owner.” Presbyterian missionaries also made in their crusade to rescue Chinese prostitutes. In 1874 the Women’s Occidental Board established the Presbyterian Mission Home as a refuge for Chinese girls and young women in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The home remained in operation until 1933 when the last major anti-prostitution trial took place. The directors, Maragaret Culbertson and Donaldina Cameron, successfully conducted numerous rescue raids with the help of the police, using the press coverage of the raid to turn public opinion against Chinese prostitution. Between 1874 and 1908 approximately one thousand mistreated mui jai and prostitutes were rescued, housed and educated at the home. Some, unaccustomed to the restrictions and austerity of the home, ran away and returned to their former status.

Others chose to return to China or stay and later married Chinese Christians. The story of Wong Ah So is typical of the lives of these rescued Chinese prostitutes. Born into a poor Catonese family, she was betrothed and married to a Chinese laundryman at 19 and taken to America. “Even if I just peeled potatoes there, he told my mother I would earn lots of money.” Upon arrival in San Francisco, Wong Ah So discovered that her husband had lied to her and her mother and that she had been brought to America to work as a prostitute. Seven months later she met a friend of her father’s at a banquet. The friend recognized her and sought help from the Presbyterian Mission on her behalf.

She was later rescued in Fresno, California, and placed in the home, where she recalled she started “learning English and how to weave, and I am going to send money to my mother when I can. I can’t help but cry, but it is going to be better” Wong Ah So’s story end happily but most of the other prostitute’s did not end quite so well. Many of them were not as lucky as China Annie, and Polly Bemis. Most of them were diseased and were left on the streets to die. When no longer young and attractive, prostitutes were put to work in cribs or small cubicles.

In 1870, Chines prostitutes were a major political concern for the new cities of the West. Chinese prostitutes were figures for a conduit of disease and social decay which was sensationalized in newspaper accounts, magazine articles, and official inquiries into the social hygiene of these women. In California, these hygiene issues were the catalyst for the supporters of prohibition of Chinese immigration to the United States. “The first act limiting Chinese immigration was the Page Act of 1870, which ostensibly prohibited “Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian women” from being brought to or entering the United States to “engage in immoral or licentious activities.” The Page Act, on the presumption of bad character and immoral purpose, required all Chinese women who wished to come to the United States to submit to lengthy and humiliating interrogations of their character prior to being issued a visa in China. The Page Act effectively closed off the immigration of Chinese wives of immigrants already in the United States.

But it did little to stop the illegal trade in women which was protected by corrupt officials on both sides of the Pacific.” The perception of Chiense prostitution as a widespread threat to the nation’s moral and physical well-being was greatly exaggerated. At the peak of Chinese prostitution in the late 1870’s, it was reported that some 900 Chinese women in San Francisco worked as prostitutes. The number of Chinese women who worked as prostitutes other than on the West Coast, however, was quite small. Although New York” Chinatown gained notoriety for prostitution, opium, and gamling, it was reported that only three of the prostitutes in the quarter were Chinese, while the overwhelming number of prostitutes who worked there were white. Nevertheless, the image of the Chinese prostitute as a source of pollution was considered a matter of urgent concern. Chinese prostitutes were said to constitute a particular threat to the physical and moral development of young white boys. In San Francisco, a Public Health Committee investigated conditions in Chinatown in 1870 professed shock that boys as young as ten could afford and did regularly use the services of the lowest level of Chinese prostitutes.

In a popular environment in which theories of national culture were freely combined with theories of germs and social hygiene, it was asserted by some public health authorities that Chinese prostitutes were the racially special carriers of more virulent and deadly strains of venereal disease. The general tended to ignore the realty and focus on the sensational accounts that fueled the perception of a social crisis. History.


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